Arab TV Producers Sample Bold On-Screen Flavors

Streaming platforms are increasingly gaining traction across the Middle East, prompting Arab TV production companies to start transitioning from churning out strictly local shows — many of which launched during Ramadan — to making bolder skeins, some with ambitions for international play.
After a slow start, the subscription video-on-demand market in the 13 leading Arabic territories is expected to rise from 8.61 million paying SVOD customers by the end of this year to 15 million by 2026, according to a recent study by London-based Digital TV Research.

Over the next five years, the study predicts that current market leader Netflix will increase subs from 3.4 million to 5.4 million, beating Amazon, which is still a small player in the region, and also beating fast-growing local platforms Shahid VIP, Starz Play Arabia and OSN, whose numbers are currently boosted by its content deal with Disney. Meanwhile, Disney Plus has announced that it will launch in the Middle East next summer,
so the SVOD field is getting pretty crowded.

“Demand is growing, but the problem is whether you should just target the local market or try to make something that can travel,” says Gianluca Chakra, head of Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment. In pursuit of the latter option, Front Row recently recruited Irish writer-director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda,” “In the Name of the Father”) and Egyptian writer Mariam Naoum to co-write high-end Arabic serial killer series “The Alexandria Killings,” on which George will serve as showrunner.

The bold “Alexandria” skein, now in development, is based on the true story of shadowy Egyptian sisters Raya and Sakina Bint Hamman, who in the 1920s ran a glamorous brothel where they robbed and murdered at least 17 women who worked for them as prostitutes. The sisters were eventually caught and sentenced to death but, interestingly, this caused major outcry at the time since other male defendants in the case did not get the same punishment.

In terms of pushing boundaries, Chakra points to recent Netflix Arab Original “Al Rawabi School for Girls” as a game-changer. Series follows a group of high school girls in Jordan as they plot their revenge on a trio of bullies at their school, and portrays violence, including sexual violence, against women, and patriarchy in Arab society.

Since dropping in August, this show has landed in Netflix’s top 10 list in many countries around the world, and also sparked controversy from some viewers who’ve argued that the narrative is skewed by Western culture and does not accurately represent life in Jordan. Still, it seems to be a hit and also a regional pop cultural milestone.

Also breaking new ground is “Hell’s Gate,” touted as the first Arab post-apocalyptic drama of its kind, and produced by MBC Group’s Shahid VIP, which recently committed to an additional $100 million annual investment in original content.

“Hell’s Gate” takes place in Beirut 2052, following a series of conflicts and deadly pandemics when governments no longer control countries. Now running Lebanon is a group of private investors and businesses — known as the Union State — and they’re not using the country for positive purposes. Fighting them is a revolutionary group. The show, which launched in September, is directed by Lebanon’s Amin Dora, who won an Intl. Emmy for his interactive web series “Shankaboot.”

Shahid VIP also recently launched another high-profile original titled “Rashash,” created by Bri-tain’s Tony Jordan (“EastEnders”) and directed by another Brit, Collin Teague, whose credits include “Doctor Who.” “Rashash” is based on the true story of a Saudi Arabian drug trafficker convicted of murder and other crimes after being caught by the police in Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s.

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